‘I rediscovered who I was’: Former Peace Corps volunteers asked to reflect on experiences

Romel Dela Cruz talks at his home on Wednesday about a photo of his wife where she's holding a huge bat, which was taken during their time in the Peace Corps in the Philippines. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Romel Dela Cruz looks at old letters his wife sent her family while they served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines at his home in Hilo on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Romel Dela Cruz talks about experiences he had during his time in the Peace Corps in the Philippines at his home in Hilo on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Romel Dela Cruz talks about experiences he had during his time in the Peace Corps in the Philippines at his home in Hilo on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

A certificate to recognize the work done through the Peace Corps was signed by President Richard Nixon and is on display April 19 at Romel Dela Cruz's house in Hilo. Dela Cruz served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, which is where he met his wife. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Romel Dela Cruz holds a photo on April 19 of his wife and him while talking about how they met through the Peace Corps at his home in Hilo. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Over 300 former Peace Corps volunteers returned to Hawaii after their service, and one group from the University of Hawaii at Hilo is hoping to document their experiences.

“We found these stories really inspiring,” said Su-Mi Lee, a political science associate professor at UH-Hilo who received the funding for the project from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Faculty Engagement Support Fund. “We have about 33 stories so far, but we want to get as many as we can.”


The Big Island served as one of the main U.S. training hubs for thousands of Peace Corps volunteers from 1962 through 1971.

Centers were set up in Hilo, Waipi‘o Valley, Mountain View and 10 other locations where volunteers learned the language, culture, and skills required for their service abroad.

Lee teamed up with Rotary Club of South Hilo member Charlene Iboshi as well as former Peace Corps volunteer Bill Sakovich, known throughout the Hilo community for his years as a swim coach at Waiakea High.

“The majority of us, including myself, came here to train, and we just fell in love with the people and the island, and for that reason, a couple hundred came back,” said Sakovich, who served in Indonesia and Morocco. “A lot of these stories start out that way.”

Sakovich was a student at UCLA when he decided to join the Peace Corps and flew out to Hawaii for training.

“The training was intense. You’re willing to spend five to six hours a day learning the language and the culture and the history and whatever it was you were involved in to teach,” he said.

The Big Island community started seeing the volunteers hitchhiking across the island or would spot them on their daunting hike up Maunakea.

“The community really remembers that time,” Iboshi said. “There were also some who were raised here on the island and joined the Peace Corps after they were inspired by President (Kennedy)’s speech.”

One of those students was Romel Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz was born in the Philippines and moved to the Big Island at the age of 9.

“I grew up in the northwest region of the island Luzon, in a place called Ilocos Norte, where most of the Filipinos in Hawaii are from,” he said.

Dela Cruz started working with his family on the sugar cane plantation and attended Honoka‘a High School.

“I decided to join the Peace Corps right after college,” he said, and arrived back in the Philippines in October 1967 for the first time.

“I rediscovered who I was,” he said. “Going back, a lot of it was self-discovery, learning who I was as a Filipino-American growing up in Hawaii.”

During that trip, Dela Cruz met his future wife, Jodean, a graduate from Michigan State University who had also been inspired to serve.

“That’s where we met, that’s where it all began,” he said. “For my wife, Jodean, one of the things that really attracted me to her was her adaptation to the culture and how she became a part of it.”

In the Philippines, Romel Dela Cruz taught science and his wife taught math and science to local students. They ate fruit bat adobo, attended celebrations, and even met Ferdinand Marcos during a campaign rally.

“We were at the high school where he went to make a speech, and Jodean and I happened to be up in the stands. He must have scanned the crowd because he came right towards us!” Dela Cruz said. “He saw this white woman up in the stands, and he came right up and extended his hand to her, and right away I had to take a picture of that.”

In addition to the photos Romel shared, he also saved several binders of letters that Jodean sent back home.

“She wrote about 150 letters to her parents, and they kept all of them, and when they both died, they gave the letters back to my wife, and she brought them home to Hawaii,” he said. “I never knew she had them until she died, and then I found them stashed with her records, and it was a blow-by-blow description of what we were doing for two years, which was spent in a country outside of America.”

The letters detailed everything happening in the Philippines as well as events back home like the Chicago riots and Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

“It’s her memoir,” Dela Cruz said.

One of the letters that stands out for him was dated November 1968.

“She wrote to her parents saying, ‘You know, I have really changed, I think I have become more Filipina, I listen better, I don’t talk as much,’” Dela Cruz said, laughing. “Then she wrote about this interesting guy from Hawaii she was getting to know, and she says, ‘I think I’m falling in love.’”

When their time in the Peace Corps ended, the two traveled throughout Southeast Asia while Jodean tried to get a job with the Hawaii Department of Education.

She was unable to get an interview and ended up working as a teacher back in Michigan. But she kept applying and eventually landed an interview, moving back to Hawaii in 1970 to teach.

“In 1970 she came back and never left,” Dela Cruz said. “We got married in 1972, we have two boys, four grandchildren, and she became a real passionate teacher of science and math, and then became an administrator and vice principal at several schools including Pahoa, Laupahoehoe, and even at Honoka‘a, my home town.”

Dela Cruz reflected on his time in the Peace Corps and what the opportunity provided.

“I think I got more than what I gave,” he said. “In the sense that I knew who I was and who I am, and when I got back, I tried to live that kind of life, and provide that kind of service.”

Jodean Dela Cruz passed away in December 2021, and Romel and his sons decided to honor her by establishing the Jodean Marie Behner-Schneider Dela Cruz Endowed Scholarship, which provides scholarships for future educators majoring in science and mathematics at the UH-Manoa College of Education.

Romel and Jodean’s story is just one from the collection of Peace Corps volunteers in Hawaii, and the group is hoping to track down more to compile their stories digitally, and eventually in printed form, to be kept at the UH-Hilo library.

“We now have hired a student (Nikki Jicha) who is helping us every week putting the stories together until the end of the semester,” Sakovich said. “But we hope to continue it after that, too.”

Those with Peace Corps experience living in Hawaii are encouraged to reach out to Sakovich and share their stories via email at swimsak@yahoo.com

Email Grant Phillips at gphillips@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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